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Archive for March, 2011

That certainly seems to be the not-so-subtle message, when a quick scan of the ether brings headlines of Abercrombie’s latest foray into the offensive — the padded push-up bikini top for girls… like, 7 year-old girls — and this little item:

A San Francisco mom admits to regularly injecting her eight year old daughter with mail-order Botox… the mom stated:

‘What I am doing for Britney now will help her become a star.

‘I know one day she will be a model, actress or singer, and having these treatments now will ensure she stays looking younger and baby-faced for longer…’

Her daughter replied:

‘My friends think it’s cool I have all the treatments and they want to be like me. I check every night for wrinkles, when I see some I want more injections. They used to hurt, but now I don’t cry that much. I also want a boob job and nose job soon, so that I can be a star.’

Well, I guess we know who that padded bikini top is being marketed to. But here’s the thing: while the Botox story sounds over-the-top outrageous, in a world where seven year old girls are being sold padded bikini tops, it’s not that over the top. The more we absorb the message that our bodies are something to do battle with–that can always be “improved,” well, the more this sort of freakshow story makes sense. And here’s the other thing: how many seven year-olds do you know who drive themselves to the mall, or have a credit card to plunk down for a pair of “Cute Butt” yoga pants? Why are moms willing to subject their daughters to this?

Worse than the message that your body is wrong, worse, even, than the sexualization of ever-younger girls is the message that underlies it: that you are nothing more than your body. That spending your time and energy forcing your body into what ‘society’ — or, less face it, the media — deems acceptable is more important than, well, anything else. And hey, after years spent buying into that and struggling to achieve the cultural physical ideal, I guess it’s no surprise that some moms think they’re giving their daughters a leg up when they’re buying them padded bikinis and injecting their foreheads with poison Botox. But: doesn’t it seem that all of this distraction is a pretty effective way to dilute women’s energy? Who has time to fight for equal pay when there’s so much physical maintenance to be done?


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In case you occasionally channel your inner adolescent, you oughta stay away from Facebook.    It’s not because — as in the days when the Mean Girls were the scourge of seventh grade — you will be judged.  It’s because you will  judge them — and find yourself falling short by comparison.

Compare.  Contrast.  Fail.

You don’t have to know from Justin Beiber to realize this is not necessarily rocket science:  Even though we all know that facebook personas are carefully curated — we do it ourselves, after all — a new study published this week in Pediatrics suggests that while we know our own profiles might be a bit, um, varnished, we tend to get sucked right in to whatever our friends post.  In other words, we believe.  We think they have more fun.

According to the study:

Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.  Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents.

No one can say for sure whether it’s cause and effect or a simple correlation, but here’s what the study’s lead author, Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe, told the Associated Press:

But there are aspects of Facebook that can make it a particularly tough social landscape to navigate for kids dealing with poor self-esteem, said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician and lead author of new American Academy of Pediatrics social-media guidelines published today in the group’s journal, Pediatrics.

With in-your-face friends’ tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don’t measure up.

It can be more painful than sitting alone in a crowded school cafeteria or other real-life encounters that can make kids feel down, O’Keeffe said, because Facebook provides a skewed view of what’s really going on. Online, there’s no way to see facial expressions or read body language that provide context.

Maybe yes?  Maybe no?  But even when we’re no longer teenagers chasing after those girls who have more fun, is there still a trace of that insecurity that wakes up whenever we get sucked into the great comparison game, the often unintended consequence of social media?  Do we search for constant validation in the form of a “like” button?  Do we end up with one more measure by which we judge ourselves?  Do we saddle up for another frantic chase after all the trappings of our iconic self?

We may have outgrown our awkward adolescent selves, but still, there’s that lingering need to compare, which is facilitated by the minute-to-minute status updates that are up in our face whenever we care to check.  On the one hand, we’re trying to make our way in this brave new land of unlimited options without a roapmap or much in the way of generational role models.  But then, right there, with the click of a button, there’s someone out there who looks to be doing it better, faster, righter — and having a lot more fun.

And just like that, we’re all about the greener grass, living the life of “if only..”   We tend to forget that sometimes life is grand, and sometimes it sucks.  But most of the time, it just is.  As Shannon wrote a while ago:
Women today have every choice–and every one of us is, at some point or another, terrified we’ve made the wrong ones. Is it any wonder, then, that we treat our public personas like we might a disssertation: something we must present and defend? Here is my choice, and look how great it is! I have achieved the American Dream–witness husband and spawn! Or: I’m single and successful and fancy-free–witness the world travels and amazing fun! When in reality, of course, both are bullshit. Because life is life and it’s fabulous at times and at other times there are diapers to change or douchebags to date, and either way there’s bills to pay… But just because we’ve come up against yet another dirty diaper–or douchebag–does not mean we chose wrong.
But back to that notion of the carefully crafted Facebook persona.   Full disclosure:  The hot-off-the-press copy of our book came in the mail Saturday morning, and before I had a chance to comb my hair or wash my face, my husband grabbed a camera and snapped a shot of me holding it, grinning from ear to ear.   He thought the picture was cute.  Me?  Yeah, not so much.  I immediately posted the pix on our Facebook page — only after I cropped out my face.

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To pick up where Shannon’s post from Tuesday left off:   Here’s more evidence that the news of men’s untimely demise has been greatly exaggerated.  To wit:

If you happen to be a high school senior, live with one, or ever were one, you know what this coming week is all about:  Waiting by the mailbox for the envelope with the college logo in the corner.

But what you may not know is the dirty little secret inside that envelope:  If you happen to be a male, you’re more likely to get the fat one.  Affirmative action for males?  Yes, ma’am.   Which is to say, colleges want more men on campus, and many private universities that are not prevented by law from doing so are tipping the scales in their favor in the great admissions sweepstakes.

Women reached parity with men on campus in the 1980′s — when they were still called co-eds: go figure — and since then, their numbers have been steadily climbing to the point where some 60 percent of today’s college applicants are women.   And they are qualified.  By and large, their test scores are higher than males’, their GPAs are higher, and they often boast a heftier list of extra-curriculars.   But since hormonally-charged teenagers are likely to prefer colleges where the male-female ration is more balanced, what happens?  Ahem. You do the math.

This business about the hidden quotas first came to light about five years ago (more below) and became news again this week when an investigation into the issue by the Civil Rights Commission that began in 2009 was suddenly disbanded.  No one knows exactly why.   (Some speculate the investigation may have been called off because it muddied the waters relating to the Title IX provisions for parity in women’s sports — or the underpinnings of affirmative action itself — but that’s another issue.)

But back to the quotas, according to a recent piece by Richard Kahlenberg in Chronicle of Higher Education, here’s the backstory:

There has long been concern that some liberal arts colleges routinely provide admissions preferences for men in order to avoid large gender imbalances in their student bodies. Some argue that once a school becomes more than 60 percent female, it becomes unattractive to many  potential applicants, male or female.

The issue gained prominence in 2006 when a Kenyon College admissions officer wrote an op-ed in the New York Times openly acknowledging that “the standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men.” For example, according to the Washington Post, the College of William & Mary admitted 43 percent of male applicants in the fall of 2008 and 29 percent of female applicants. An admissions officer told U.S. News & World Report: “It’s not the College of Mary and Mary; it’s the College of William and Mary.” Canadian medical schools, likewise, have recently raised concerns about educating too many women to become doctors. While many suggest that white women are the primarily beneficiaries of affirmative action, in most undergraduate admissions, precisely the opposite is true.

Ugh, right?  Since when did we decide that we should privilege a group with special preferences when that group has historically been, you know, privileged?  Oops.  Stop me before I go on.

Anyway, what got me all riled up today was this post by Susan Newman, Ph.D. in Psychology Today that cited a bunch of numbers on the lack of progress women had made in the workforce over the past few decades:

… the disparity between men and women in earning power, advancement, and titles runs deep and it doesn’t seem to be improving despite new laws and corporate awareness.

According to a survey, Pipeline’s Broken Promise, from Catalyst, a global organization that evaluates women’s progress in the workforce, “for the past two decades leaders have counted on parity in education, women’s accelerated movement into the labor force, and company-implemented diversity and inclusion programs to yield a robust talent pipeline where women are poised to make rapid gains to the top. But results of this study show that these hopes were ill-founded-when it comes to top talent, women lag men in advancement, compensation, and career satisfaction. The pipeline is not healthy; inequality remains entrenched.”

Fortune Magazine reports that in the top Fortune 500 companies, only 15 women are CEOs. Women with MBAs earn an average of $4,600 less than men with the same degree. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research revealed that pretty much across the board men continue to work in the highest paid jobs and when men and woman have the same job, men earn more. That holds true if the job is as a registered nurse or home health aide, teacher, or administrative assistant. Looking at some of the highest paid occupations–physicians and surgeons–male doctors have the income edge over women. Economist Linda Babcock and writer Sara Laschever point out another disturbing imbalance in their book, Women Don’t Ask: Women own about 40 percent of all businesses in the U.S. but receive only 2.3 percent of the available equity capital needed for growth. Male-owned companies receive the other 97.7 percent.

Now.  Look to the beginning of that so-called pipeline:  parity in education.  We’re there.  We’re better than there.  So what happens?  We’re being squeezed so that men can catch up.  Because, who knows, if there are too many of us around, that might one day translate to — gulp — equal pay.  Or even worse, a woman boss.

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Oh, how I tire of the End of Men headlines.

Two recent books have reignited the conversation, though, as their titles indicate, they come at it from decidedly different perspectives. In “Manning Up,” Kay Hymowitz argues that men taking longer to grow up and get married (which are, you know, boogeyman-bad phenomena) is a problem for which feminism is to blame. Then there’s “Man Down,” by Dan Abrams, which argues that women are better than men at basically everything. (On a recent appearance on The View, Joy Behar made him blush when she asked: “Did you just write the book to get laid?”) In his book, Abrams cites a lot of science that’ll have women feeling proud, but some of it is cause for pause. Check, for example, this, from a Q&A at MyDaily:

You cite a study that shows that people often find news more credible when it’s read by a female newscaster, but that the same people often find male newscasters more credible in general. This dynamic shows up in your analysis of women in politics as well. Can you tell us what you think is going on here?
Look, I think that there are still a lot of people who have what I might view as antiquated stereotypes about how they view everything from world leaders to doctors to newscasters. It’s really striking, the idea that they viewed the messages coming from a woman as more credible but when they were asked who was more credible, they said men.

And this is exactly the kind of thing that gets my blood boiling whenever I come across something like Hymowitz’ “Manning Up”–woe be the man, no longer the king of the castle, the apex of the food chain! I’m not the only one; here’s a nice little taste from Kate Tuttle’s take down in the Boston Globe:

[Hymowitz's] zeal to somehow tie women’s educational and economic advances to this perceived downward spiral in men’s maturity levels leads her to make wild claims and to confuse cause and effect, as when she points out that women only make less money than men if you take into account their disproportional numbers in low-paying careers–there’s a more logical way to spin that fact, as I’m sure she realizes. But when your point is that somehow women are doing better than men, and that this improvement in women’s lives somehow comes at the expense of men’s identity, well, it’s better to throw around lines like ‘feminism’s siren call to the workplace’ than to question why jobs traditionally held by women pay less than jobs traditionally held by men.

An important question, doncha think? Perhaps it has to do with fears of being perceived as too ambitious, or of women’s work being undervalued? (An equally important question might be this: who are these women–writing books, running for the second-highest public office–so quick to denigrate feminism?)

More annoying, though, is this: on the very same day I found myself reading one women’s argument as to why feminism is to blame for all that ails the modern man and one man’s assertion that, to quote the Grateful Dead, The Women Are Smarter, I came across an NYT piece titled “At M.I.T., Success Comes With Unexpected Consequences.” The story leads off with a nod to M.I.T.’s recent push to hire more women, but quickly takes a nosedive into the unexpected consequences. And as we all know, unexpected consequences are never good.

But with the emphasis on eliminating bias, women now say the assumption when they win important prizes or positions is that they did so because of their gender. Professors say that female undergraduates ask them how to answer male classmates who tell them they got into M.I.T. only because of affirmative action.

(I have some idea of how I’d answer such a statement. And I didn’t even go to M.I.T.)

But wait; there’s more! For every positive development, an unintended consequence. Pro: every committee must include a woman! Con: because there are so many fewer women than men on the faculty, nearly every woman is on a committee–and, thus, losing time for research,

as well as the outside consultancies that earn their male colleagues a lot of money.

Pro: There are better family leave policies in place. Con:

Yet now women say they are uneasy with the frequent invitations to appear on campus panels to discuss their work-life balance. In interviews for the study, they expressed frustration that parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one.

As Professor Sive said, ‘Men are not expected to discuss how much sleep they get or what they give their kids for breakfast.’

Better grab a Pop-Tart for this next one:

Despite an effort to educate colleagues about bias in letters of recommendation for tenure, those for men tend to focus on intellect while those for women dwell on temperament.

Sure doesn’t sound like we’re on equal ground [she typed with a smile]. And yet, it seems all but impossible to escape the hand-wringing over the End of Men.

Speaking of the end of men, Hanna Rosin, who wrote the article of the same name for The Atlantic, on last week’s Double X Gabfest spoke with her colleagues Jessica Grose and Kate Julian about manning up, manning down, and the end of men. In it, Rosin puts forth an interesting theory: They’re old themes in America: that of the self-made man, the constant opportunity for self-reinvention. It’s an ideology, she says, that created a constant state of “anxiety in men, that you were constantly having to prove yourself.”

At that point, another voice, I think Grose, pipes in to say that the women she knows, in their 20s and 30s, are incredibly anxious about making something of themselves, too, weighed down by the idea of having it all.

Um, yeah. We’d tend to agree. So, let’s just take a moment to review: in addition to the sorts of unexpected consequences outlined in the NYT piece about M.I.T., women are also facing the kind of anxiety that men have been dealing with for centuries–only, because it’s new to our gender as a whole, we have to navigate that without benefit of role models… And yet, we wonder, is this the end of men?

I suppose it depends on what is meant by the word “men.” Could it be that what’s really going on is that the traditional definitions are growing less and less relevant; that women are becoming more like traditional ‘men,’ and men, more like us?

Interestingly, later still I found myself flipping through the mountainous stack of unread magazines on my dining room table (/desk). A headline on this month’s Marie Claire caught my eye: “New Trend: Male Baby Fever.” Inside, the piece claims that men are hankering to become daddies, dumping women not yet ready to settle down. (Wonder what Hymowitz would make of that?)

(While this, I’m sure, is generally viewed as a warm-fuzzy variety story, a trend to be applauded, the logical counterpart–the one about those women who aren’t feeling the settling down thing–would likely be met with tsk-tsks and hyperbolic cries that this time, feminism has really done it; the end of the world as we know it is near!)

But. I wonder.

Even if it is only a (insert air quotes here) Trend Piece, and even if it only hints at an inkling of a trend, might it hold the potential for a pleasant-yet-unintended consequence: If men are increasingly the ones with baby-fever, maybe, soon enough, they’ll be the ones fighting for a more family friendly workplace. Maybe they’ll want their wives to make the same kind of money they do. While I don’t envision a day when they’ll be the ones stuck talking sleep, judged on their temperament, rather than their accomplishments, I like to imagine a time when it occurs to them that a more equal world is worth fighting for–and an unintended consequence of fighting for it might be better conditions for everyone.

Pipe dream or Pop Tart? Time will tell.


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So, earlier this week writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner (we’ve written about her before), had a piece on the Wall Street Journal’s blog that ignited what can only be described as a Category 5 shitstorm. The post is entitled “Time for a War on ‘Mommy’”–and, while I am neither a mommy nor a mother, I happen to believe that her point… and maybe, the real source of the vitriol–is relevant for all women. Not just mommies mothers.

But first. At issue: use of the word ‘mommy’ by anyone other than the fruit of your womb–and, importantly, in phrases like “Mommy Wars,” “Mommy Track,” and “Mommy Blog”. Here’s a taste:

Why is anyone other than my 3-year old (and his 8-month old brother eventually, but not yet) calling me Mommy? Why are we grown women calling each other Mommy? Is being a mother such a silly avocation that we have to baby it up, stringing it with the hormones and gushy feelings of what our children call us? Does it strike anyone that calling a woman who has had a child Mommy is demeaning and infantilizing?

This started long before the Mommy Wars, though. In the 1980s, the attempt to simplify our conflict over how to balance family and career results in a conclusion called the Mommy Track. It was a way to paint us as women who were so flighty that now that we’d gotten what we wanted–careers!–we realized that jobs weren’t all that and we wanted to go back home, where we could safely watch soap operas. Calling us Mommy then said, ‘You’ve done a good job pretending to be men, but the minute you get a baby in you, you become a hearth-sweeping woman who can only speak in goos and gahs.’

But when enough people say something, it kind of becomes true, doesn’t it? Women began to identify with the name Mommy and started not to mind when businesses would market to them as such: The Mommy Hook is a clip that hangs off my stroller and holds a shopping bag. The Mommy Necklace is a necklace that your child can’t choke on. Mommy Make-Up promises I can ‘look divine in half the time.’

Mommy Make-Up? Really? Ugh.

Moving on:

We are being marketed to as this squishy thing–the Mommy–which confirms our needs but calls us names while doing it. Because when a woman calls herself a Mommy, she is, in some ways, identifying with her captors.

Okay! Now, one might think that a woman–a mother herself–pointing out that she is first and foremost, you know, a person, might be allowed to make her point. Maybe even engender a little sympathy. Perhaps pointing out the fact that there’s a “linguistic discrepancy”–Daddy Track, anyone? Thought not–might ignite just a spark of consciousness around the fact that, yes, women are treated differently when they become parents (in more ways than one: let us not forget the charming fact that employers view an employee who’s a mother as risky–potentially flaky, distracted, likely to duck out early, while they tend to view employees who are fathers as more stable, more reliable, more worthy of promotion). One might wonder if there isn’t something worth exploring in the idea that men don’t get comparatively bent out of shape when they’re called daddies… upon consideration, one might conclude that this is perhaps because men aren’t insidiously infantilized, here and there, all over the culture. Or one might relate, but in a different way: perhaps one is not a mother or a mommy, but a woman writer who would take grand offense if one’s books were classified as a chick lit.

One might even think: mother, mommy; tomato, tomahto…who cares?–and promptly move on.

But, no. The Internet is a dark and scary place, after all, and the commenters came out of their caves in force, some of them resorting, literally, to schoolyard taunts. (One quoted an English nursery-school rhyme about killing a Welshman named Taffy. Just…. really? Who are these people?)

So anyway, my question is: why the vitriol? Why is it so taboo for a woman to suggest she derives her identity from within, rather than without? And why is it so difficult for women to allow their sisters a little nuance in their identities? Can’t someone be a great mother and HATE being called Mommy by someone trying to sell her something (something, in all likelihood, nearly exactly like something else she already owns, but which is not festooned with the grand identifier Mommy)? Can’t someone who enjoys being called Mommy be also intelligent, aware, not a tool who’s blindly “identifying with her captors”? From Erica Jong’s riff on attachment parenting to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to Hiroshima in the Morning to Taffy’s takedown on ‘Mommy,’ why does everyone feel so damn invested in what one mother says about the way she’s doing it??

I have a theory.

We like our people simple. Our women especially. Easily defined. Simply categorized. And, when it comes to women, the less threatening, the better. But also: this thing about women having all kinds of options, all sorts of ways to structure their lives, to cobble together their own reality made up of some parts work, some parts fun, some parts family–well, it’s new. And nothing’s perfect–and when we’re having One Of Those Days, maybe we start to question the way we’re doing it. And maybe one of the easiest ways to reassure ourselves we’re Doing It Right is to clobber anyone who dares to do it differently.

What sucks, of course, is that the more we buy into this sort of Us vs. Them thinking, the quicker we are to file everyone else away into one camp or the other–which is bad–and the less able we are to allow ourselves a little bit of nuance–which is worse. And it’s sad. Because each of us is loaded with nuance–that’s what makes us special, as individual as a snowflake.

I know — my mommy told me so.


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A new study suggests that when boundaries blur between work and home, women feel guilty.  Men?  Nope.  Even when after-hours demands are the same.

Women?  Guilt? Well, duh, right?

But here’s what’s interesting. The findings held true whether the work demands actually interfered with home life or not.  And here’s what’s more interesting: The study also found that women didn’t even have to have families to feel distressed when work came home.

Call it the unintended consequences of the “always on” life:  the electronica that makes it so easy to bring work home that, you know, we bring work home.  But why should women feel the pressure of the phonecalls, emails, texts and tweets  more so than men?  The authors blame cultural conditioning.  Over at Jezebel, Irin Carmon does, too:

… there are several things at play here, including the obvious aspect that women are culturally conditioned to feel guilty about doing exactly what their male counterparts are doing: Earning a living. (Remember the moral of the story in The Devil Wears Prada, in which the protagonist becoming good at her demanding job is conflated with abandoning her values and her boyfriend and friends? In which she watches a woman at the top of her game lose her husband?) We’re also constantly expected to make it look effortless, with which a frantic late night call or email tends to interfere.

We’re also soft-wired — or maybe hard-wired — to please.  An urgent (aren’t they all?) text or email from a [student, client, editor, boss, insert one] shoots in just before we flop into bed?  We respond.  We’d feel bad if we didn’t — and feel bad when we do.

Now.  We could solve this angst by going off the grid the minute we walk inside the front door.  Thus, fixing ourselves.  But, that’s not going to happen, is it?  Especially given the above.  Not to mention the need for a paycheck.  So let’s work on the culture itself, shall we?   Both the culture of the workplace and the social culture, too.  And to change all  that, sisters, we need to fight for getting more of us in high places.  If that sounds like a call for quotas, as you might find in some Scandinavian countries — what the hell, let’s go there.  Because, guess what?  It’s even better for the bottom line.

More about the money below, but first, let’s go back to that study, which was published this month in the “Journal of Social Behavior and Health”:

“… these results suggest that work contact may not necessarily inhibit the performance of domestic roles, but they still can have health implications in the form of negative self-appraisals and the feelings of guilt that may arise when the boundary separating work and family life becomes blurred.

And for women, the authors write, even though “gendered role identities” have long since changed, we’re still stuck with the weight of the old expectations.  We’re caught in this shifting cultural landscape, one foot in the way things were, the other in the way things are.  And consequently, feel rotten. As the authors of the study told Science Daily:

“Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men,” says lead author Paul Glavin, a PhD candidate in sociology at [University of Toronto]. “However, this wasn’t the case. We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress.”

The study’s co-author, sociologist Scott Schieman, says it’s all about differing expectations:

“While women have increasingly taken on a central role as economic providers in today’s dual-earner households, strong cultural norms may still shape ideas about family responsibilities. These forces may lead some women to question or negatively evaluate their family role performance when they’re trying to navigate work issues at home.”

Sigh.  Now what?  Well, we can sit around and feel guilty for, uh, feeling guilty.  I was raised Irish Catholic, after all.  I can definitely go there.  But still, I vote for Door No. 2:  Changing the structures and cultural norms that leave us in this land of mea culpa.  And for that, we need more women at the top: women who themselves know what it is to feel this angst.  And then there’s this: if changing structures, revamping expectations, and redefining the whole concept of worklife don’t-call-it-balance isn’t enough to make us fight for more women in high places, let’s knock on the door of enlightened self-interest.  This is where the money comes in.

The WSJ reports that the two companies that had the best stock-market gains in 2010 were run by, you guessed it, women.   In the piece, consultant Ann de Jaeger says it’s crucial to get more women into the boardroom — simply to boost profits.  But she also says that one reason only 3 percent of the boards of the Fortune 500 are comprised of women is that women have had to fit into the male model — or not fit in at all. Asked why successful women often leave their companies before they can be promoted, she says:

Because at a particular point, they realize that they have been too busy being someone else instead of themselves and therefore cannot bring their best to the table. Women seem to adapt to the prevailing – male – culture as they rise on the corporate ladder. They are not even aware of the fact that they are doing this – they simply play along and adapt out of a sheer survival instinct.

And then, bow out. When asked what we need to do to get women upstairs, she edges ever closer to the Euro-idea of quotas:

It would be preferable if the drive to do something about gender balance came from within companies – from the strategic need to reflect the market and the talent pipeline in decision-making bodies.

On the other hand, we see every day that progress is very, very slow. Too many companies adopt a compliance approach, a “fix the women” strategy – as if they can tick a box, run a couple of events, provide amenities that make life a little easier, but they don’t allow for real inclusiveness.

Fix the women?  Or fix the structures?  I know what I choose.  Without the slightest trace of guilt.

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… a geek?

Sister, it’s complicated.  And the choice may have more than a little bit to do with sexism, according to a new study reported on by Slate.

We’ve heard any number of reasons why women avoid math and science, but as Shankar Vedantam reports in Slate, one thing is not in dispute –  the conspicuous absence of the extra X in science and tech jobs (where, ahem, the money often is):

Less than one in five professors of science and math at top research universities in the United States is a woman. The gender distribution of engineers at top Silicon Valley companies is similar to the gender distribution of the audience at your average strip club.

Strip club?  Ouch.  The piece goes on:

Much has been written about why the number of women in science and math plummets as the intellectual demands in those fields rise with age. We’ve spent years arguing about potential differences in the brains of men and women (courtesy of the controversy spurred five years ago by [former Harvard president Lawrence Summers] former head of President Obama’s National Economic Council), the role of discrimination, and differences between men and women in the way they balance work and home life.

Most Americans believe the doors of opportunity are wide open to careers in science and math, a view that meshes perfectly with John Tierney’s recent argument that worries about sexism are a distraction. (Alison Gopnik recently critiqued Tierney’s claim in Slate.) Anyone can become a scientist or an engineer if she has the necessary interest, determination, and talent. If fewer women than men walk through those doors of opportunity, it has to be because fewer women than men have the necessary interest, determination, and talent. Fewer women than men freely choose to become scientists or engineers.

Freely?  The operative word.  We’ll go there in a minute.  But first, as we reported here last year, at least one study has shown that women avoid math and science, not because they lack the aptitude, but because they don’t feel welcome.  It’s called  social identity threats.  We also relayed a conversation with Stanford economist Myra Strober, founder of Stanford’s  Center for Research on Women back in 1972.  While emphasizing that the pay gap between men and women has to go — she’s an economist, after all –  then said this:

“Opening up and making science and engineering more interesting for women so that they go into those careers is very important.  I think you teach it in a different way.  First of all, some of these science courses are taught so competitively because they’re trying to winnow out which people are going to get good grades in medical school.  Of course, women have gone into medicine.  But I think science other than medicine, I think women are poorly represented in those fields.  And I think it behooves those fields to figure out how to make those courses more appealing to women.  And the workplace, too.”

All of which leads us back to Hamlet’s eternal question by way of that Slate piece, which reports on a new study by Jane Stout, Nilanjana Dasgupta, Matthew Hunsinger, and Melissa A. McManus, Amherst psychologists who found that that when girls and women with an aptitude for science and math nonetheless sidestep those careers, it’s often a subtle form of sexism that’s to blame.

In one part of the study, female science students were asked to take a tough math test.  They were greeted by volunteers — male or female math majors — and guess what happened?  The students who were greeted by women attempted more questions on the test than the students who were greeted by men.  In another experiment, the psychologist measured whether having male or female math professors made a difference with female students.  It did.  When the professor was female, class participation rose from 7 percent at the beginning of the semester to 46 percent by the end.  (With male professors?  It stayed the same.)  Worse, the percentage of students seeking help outside of class dropped from 12 percent at the beginning of the quarter to zero when the prof was a male.  With women profs?  The percentage rose slightly.

But most important was this:

… when Stout and Dasgupta evaluated how much the students identified with mathematics, they found that women ended up with less confidence in their mathematical abilities when their teachers were men rather than women. This happened even when women outperformed men on actual tests of math performance.

You don’t have to be a science geek to know where this is headed:  the subtle discrimination that impacts our choices.  And part of that discrimination — let’s just call it sexism — may have to do with whether or not we have role modes who look like us who make us feel that we belong.  Back to Slate:

Our reasons for feeling suited to particular professions are only partially—and perhaps tangentially—tied to our interests, determination, and talent. More than three decades ago, psychotherapists at Georgia State University studied why some women, by all objective measures bright and talented, believed they were less gifted than they were. No matter the evidence, they believed they were imposters.

To be or not to be?  You tell me.
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It’s International Women’s Day, and if you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone.

By way of celebration, I’m compelled to take stock. The good, the bad, the ugly.

Ugly’s first: According to a new report issued by the White House entitled “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being,” women of all levels of education earn, on average, 75 percent what their male counterparts do. The study–incidentally… or not so incidentally, the first of its kind since 1963–also found that women are more likely to be living in poverty than men.

Uglier still may be HR 1, the House of Representatives’ proposed budget resolution that would drastically cut domestic and international family planning programs, eliminate funding for comprehensive sex education, and completely defund Planned Parenthood. (Tell your senator to vote that sucker down here.) In a word: shameful.

And the ugliest of them all (sorry, but it can no longer be ignored): Charlie Sheen, national spectacle. The man is a wife beater who has terrorized women for years. Yes, the trainwreck that is he has had its entertaining moments, but it’s time to look away. Fo serio.

Of course, compared to places where women have no right to education, little access to health care, a lack of economic opportunity, or where they are forced into early marriage or to endure sexual violence, we’re looking pretty good. But these issues are our issues. Violence begets violence, and when you don’t value half of the population, violence is pretty much inevitable.

Which brings me to the good: the staggeringly important work that Hillary Clinton‘s doing–doing not because it’s glamorous, but because it’s important–detailed in a fabulous piece on The Daily Beast. In “Hillary Clinton’s War for Women’s Rights,” writer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon digs deep–and reminds us that, perhaps like many of us, Clinton works hard: she’s already out-traveled every one of her predecessors, having banked 465,000 miles and 79 countries so far, and the cause she champions–empowering women–is slowly gaining steam.

Children now study the young readers’ edition of Three Cups of Tea as part of their classroom curriculum, while an increasing number of college-age students are committing time to NGOs involved with women’s issues. And though Washington is proving slower to embrace Clinton’s cause, her own popularity is soaring: she is the second-most-admired woman in America (after Oprah Winfrey), according to a Newsweek poll of women in late February. Meanwhile, the State Department’s 2012 fiscal-year request includes $1.2 billion in programs specifically targeting women, $832 million of which will go toward global health initiatives. Tellingly, comparisons with past years can’t be made, since the department only started tracking women-focused dollars in 2010.

Those are the sorts of things I feel I should be writing about. (Or at least pointing you towards something like this, Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s list of 100 Women Who Changed the World.) But, you know, today I’m inclined to just Thank Goddess for my ladies, who make my life better every way and every day. For listening. And talking. For rescuing me when my heart was broken, when my car was broken down, when I couldn’t keep food down. (It was ugly. On a Mexican vacay. You know who you are–and I am forever in your debt.) For making me laugh, and letting me cry. And it occurs to me that if the women in my life make my life that much better, what might all of us do for the world?


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Thanks for the offer.  But let’s just have some chocolate cake and call it a day.

More about this cake business later, but first, there’s this:  Newsweek is the latest to hop aboard the streetcar named Can’t Decide — our own trek for the past two years — with its current cover story on the “twitterization” of our culture, or why we can’t think.

The story references research by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, who found that information overload mucks with our ability to make decisions — and control our emotions:

“With too much information, ” says Dimoka, “people’s decisions make less and less sense.”

So much for the ideal of making well-informed decisions. For earlier generations, that meant simply the due diligence of looking things up in a reference book. Today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinion never stops. That can be a good thing, as when information empowers workers and consumers, not to mention whistle-blowers and revolutionaries. You can find out a used car’s accident history, a doctor’s malpractice record, a restaurant’s health-inspection results. Yet research like Dimoka’s is showing that a surfeit of information is changing the way we think, not always for the better. Maybe you consulted scores of travel websites to pick a vacation spot—only to be so overwhelmed with information that you opted for a staycation. Maybe you were this close to choosing a college, when suddenly older friends swamped your inbox with all the reasons to go somewhere else—which made you completely forget why you’d chosen the other school. Maybe you had the Date From Hell after being so inundated with information on “matches” that you chose at random. If so, then you are a victim of info-paralysis.

We devoted a whole chapter in our book to the science of decision making (and several posts, like this one, from over a year ago)  Like Newsweek, we found that too many options sends the brain into overdrive, at which point it often says screw it and just goes off to bed.  Also like Newsweek, we found that the constant beep and buzz of the electronica that has become a part of our every waking moment just adds to the chaos, making it close to impossible for us to make a decision — or be happy with it when we do.

A lot revolves around a pivotal 1950′s study, cleverly titled “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, that found that your rational brain can only hold about seven different things in working memory at any one time.  More than that, and your head starts spinning.  Ms. Rational Brain is likely to say “I quit” — and cede control to the emotional brain.

If you’re thinking this can’t end well, you’d be right.  This is where the chocolate cake comes in.

Several decades after that pivotal study, a Stanford marketing professor named Baba Shiv tested the theory with a bunch of hungry college students.  He had one group memorize two-digits — and the other group, seven.  Afterward, they were offered their choice of reward — fruit salad or gooey chocolate cake — and guess what happened?  The crew that was overloaded with info overwhelmingly chose cake.  The two-digit folks?  Fruit salad, please.

You can guess which group might have had some regrets a little later.  Which brings us to our point.  When you are overloaded with information — or options — decision making becomes a labyrinth of twists and turns that rarely has a happy ending.  We second-guess.  We regret. We start jonesing for the greener grass.   Add the constant distractions of Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and [insert Next Big Thing here] and it’s no wonder we can’t decide what to have for dinner, much less what to do with our lives.

All of which is that much worse for women when it comes to what-do-I-do-now decisions.  Why?  Generational, sister.  Suddenly we’re faced with more options than our mothers or grandmothers ever thought possible, and we’re running the road without a map.  Or role models, either.  We can be doctors.  We can be lawyers.  We can run off to join the circus.  We can stay home to raise  kids.  We can stay home to write books.  We can do anything.  We can do everything.  So how do we choose? Especially when, as Shannon wrote on Tuesday, we live on a steady diet of news feeds, tweets and other app-philia from the land of perfect, all of which seem to proclaim:  Look at me!  I’ve gotten it right.  Ahem, and you?

And me?  Sigh.   There’s more about the science of decision making in the Newsweek piece, and lots more than that in Chapter 5 of our book.  And in fact, I could add quite a bit more to this post.   But you know what?  There’s chocolate cake in the office down the hall, and I’m headed that way.   And you don’t have to tell me:  You want some too.

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Clicking through my Facebook friends, one could be forgiven for assuming I do a lot of socializing at preschools. One would be wrong, of course: the truth is that countless of my pals have replaced their profile pics with snaps of their wee ones; their status updates with diaper-status updates. Continuing along, one might also assume that, somewhere in my travels, I infiltrated a tribe of Carrie Bradshaw clones: beautiful, successful folks living the life, traveling to important places to do important things, wearing fabulous clothes while hanging out with fabulous people.

On the surface (and what is Facebook if not surface?), everyone’s having a dandy time living the lives they chose. Which is dandy. But how real is it?

We’ll come back to that. First, though, let’s take a look at an interesting piece on Salon.com entitled “How Facebook can affirm a woman’s singlehood.” In it, Tracy Clark-Flory makes the point that, for many women, spying on their married-and-mommied friends via the ‘book makes them feel validated to have put career first. Here’s a bit:

My friend Katherine is successful, dynamic, and fiercely intelligent–but, unmarried and childless at 32, she feels pressure from some to hurry up and achieve something that really matters: settling down and having kids. There is nothing new about a woman wondering if she’s sacrificed her love life for her career–but what is new is how Facebook is allowing these women to compare how their life choices have panned out with those of their peers, and sometimes it’s actually validating.

Katherine recently told me, ‘I go on there and I see these beautiful, intelligent women that I grew up with and they’re all married to these accountant types who wear polos and golf on the weekends. Yes, they have kids, a home and a husband — but it just looks so painfully, unbearably boring.’ Granted the whole truth is that she also sometimes feels jealousy — for instance, when a friend who is married with a baby posts about ‘drinking a glass of wine and eating oysters with her husband at their cute house with the bathroom they just remodeled themselves.’

…Despite all the choices available to women today, many still fret that in putting their career first and worrying about marriage and kids later they will ultimately miss out on the latter. There is a biological reality behind those concerns, but there are also plenty of cultural myths and trumped-up anxiety — the lonely cat lady who dies without anyone noticing and ends up being eaten by her hungry companion, for example — that serve as cautionary tales. The warning, of course, is that we will be punished for being too ambitious and going against our basic nature. Given the high stakes, it’s no surprise that this often leads to comparison and competition — and Facebook serves as a virtual looking glass through which to explore the path not taken.

So interesting isn’t it, how even here, life is presented as either-or for women. One path or the other. Career or love. Driven or domesticated. And if that’s the case, no wonder we have such a hard time making the choices that will take us down one road or another: they mean too much. And they’re too narrow. What if we want some of one, but more of the other? Where’s the profile for that?

And speaking of profiles, perhaps all of this angst–and uncertainty–over whether or not we’re making the right choices is why we’re so compelled to present ourselves so charmingly. We all have doubts. Do you think Katherine’s oyster-eating DIY couple posted the fact that they nearly killed each other while drywalling their new commode? Or the flipside:

‘Here I am, sitting in traffic, getting home to my tiny one-bedroom apartment, and eating macaroni and cheese after an 11-hour work day,’ [Katherine] says. ‘But I don’t post things about traffic, or sitting in my pajamas watching ‘Top Chef’ on Facebook! I write status updates about attending premiere parties and meticulously select profile pictures. I have to believe it’s all relative.’

Of course it is. Women today have every choice–and every one of us is, at some point or another, terrified we’ve made the wrong ones. Is it any wonder, then, that we treat our public personas like we might a disssertation: something we must present and defend? Here is my choice, and look how great it is! I have achieved the American Dream–witness husband and spawn! Or: I’m single and successful and fancy-free–witness the world travels and amazing fun! When in reality, of course, both are bullshit. Because life is life and it’s fabulous at times and at other times there are diapers to change or douchebags to date, and either way there’s bills to pay… But just because we’ve come up against yet another dirty diaper–or douchebag–does not mean we chose wrong.


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